As the election draws nearer, New Orleans voters are receiving plenty of political mail. One slick piece is from the PAC for Justice, advertising endorsements in races for Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, Juvenile Court and Traffic Court.
In this election, the organization is promoting a “Slate for Justice,” that will “bring fairness, justice and equality to a broken system.” In the mail piece, the PAC for Justice claimed “New Orleans judges have locked people away while profiting off their backs. It's time to flip the bench.” This shocking allegation was coupled with other charges such as Orleans Parish judges have “Overseen a criminal justice system full of corruption.”
Allegations of corruption and receiving financial benefits are alarming to say the least. It is worthwhile to investigate who has the audacity to make such assertions and who desperately wants to "flip the bench."
The chairperson of the PAC for Justice is Norris Henderson, who is involved in numerous political and criminal justice reform organizations. The PAC for Justice has raised approximately $100,000 to “flip the bench” and elect judicial candidates in line with their philosophy.
Henderson is the founder and executive director of Voice of the Experienced and Voters Organized to Educate. He has also started a variety of other organizations including Voice of the Ex-Offender, Prison Reform Coalition and Safe Streets Strong Communities.
It is fitting that the motto of Voice of the Experienced is “From Chains to Change,” since Henderson has transitioned from serving a lengthy prison term to being an advocate for change of the criminal justice system.
Henderson was convicted of second-degree murder in one case, while being a suspect in another murder. According to his organization’s website, Henderson was “wrongfully incarcerated.”
Henderson was not exonerated or wrongfully imprisoned, but he was fortunate that then-Judge Calvin Johnson released him due to his legal work on behalf of other inmates. While Henderson has received awards from the ACLU and has been the subject of glowing praise from criminal justice reform advocates, there is no denying that he was identified as the killer of Henry Joseph in 1973 and was twice found guilty of killing his sister, Betty Jean Joseph, in 1975.
The court documents and news accounts tell the stories: Despite Betty Jean Joseph identifying Henderson as the killer of her brother, he was not apprehended by police. He left New Orleans to evade capture but returned in 1975 to murder the only witness, the 18-year-old Betty Jean Joseph, as she was riding home from school on her bicycle. Henderson stood over the young girl and shot her. In her dying words to the school principal, Betty Jean Joseph identified Norris Henderson and his brother as the ones who shot her.
Instead of being incarcerated for life, Henderson was released by Johnson in 2003 because he was eligible for parole after serving more than 20 years under the previous second-degree murder statue. Since that time, the ACLU notes he has become “an inspiration to those concerned with the rights of the unrepresented and voiceless.”
What is particularly disturbing is that candidates are enthusiastically seeking an endorsement from an organization, led by an individual who has refused to admit his apparent guilt in two murders.
This shows an appalling lack of regard for the Joseph family.
It is time for the candidates endorsed by the PAC for Justice to be asked about how victims and their families should be respected and compensated.
While an endorsement from Henderson and his organization may be politically valuable, there is nothing more critical for a judicial candidate than showing solidarity with crime victims and their families. In recent decades, there have been far too many casualties of violent crime in New Orleans, and it is outrageous that so many victims are cruelly forgotten as political candidates and their consultants solely focus on showing concern for the criminals.
In these crucial judicial elections, the stakes are high for both the future of New Orleans and the safety of its citizens.